This marker commemorates the site of the 1,600-bed US Army General Hospital in Penn Park (SLM photo)
Corruption and disloyalty: Two tales from York’s Civil War past
Gettysburg Magazine, a semi-annual journal published by the University of Nebraska, has recently published an article I wrote on the U.S. Army General Hospital during the 1863 Gettysburg Campaign. The sprawling facility of 14 separate wards treated almost 1,000 Union soldiers wounded at the battle of Gettysburg (and, 200 wounded Confederates received attention at the Odd Fellows Hall on S. George Street). Dr. Henry Palmer, a Wisconsin native, supervised the hospital from the summer of 1862 (shortly after it opened) until September 1864 when he resigned for health reasons. During the war, the administrator and his large staff of assistant surgeons and hospital stewards serviced more than 14,000 patients in York. Remarkably, less than 200 men died from their injuries or illnesses, making York Hospital one of the safest army medical facilities in the country in terms of mortality rates.
Palmer, by all accounts, was a devoted family man who buried a young daughter in Prospect Hill Cemetery after she succumbed to an illness that could not be treated. He had a reputation for honesty and extreme loyalty to the Union. Unfortunately, some doctors who worked for him and some of the surrounding neighborhood civilians did not match Dr. Palmer in either quality.
Here are two such sad stories.
In our first case, one of Palmer’s trusted staff doctors tried to, against army regulations, “double dip.” He attempted to compel a patient into paying him directly for services rendered, on top of his normal monthly pay as an army physician. Once Palmer learned of the incident, punishment was swift and the doctor was seeking new employment. The army soon circulated the story to discourage other dishonest doctors from similarly jeopardizing their careers.
From the March 8, 1864, Philadelphia Press:
Relieved from Duty — The following order was received from the Medical Director’s office yesterday:
Headquarters Dep’t of the Susquehanna, Chambersburg, Pa., March 1, 1864.
Special Orders, No. 46 — Wallace M. Purcell, M. D., an acting assistant surgeon, is hereby relieved of duty in the Medical Department of the Department of the Susquehanna, for endeavoring to compel a wounded officer under charge of Surgeon H. Palmer, United States volunteers, in charge of York Hospital, to pay for medical and surgical treatment, when he was receiving a salary from the Government for services as a surgeon and physicians. By command of Major General [Darius N.] Couch, John L. Schultz, Assistant Adjutant General.
A true copy, furnished to surgeons in charge of hospitals, who are directed to publish the same in their respective hospitals. John Campbell, Surgeon U.S.A. and Medical Director.
Dr. Palmer enjoyed the respect and friendship of the pro-Unionists in York. An incident from the Confederate occupation of the borough cemented his reputation. As reports came that the Rebels were on their way to York and civic officials had surrendered their town, Palmer decided to stay put at the hospital to tend to five patients whose conditions were too critical to move. The Rebels soon arrived, took over the hospital, and arrested Palmer as a prisoner of war.
As I wrote in the article for Gettysburg Magazine, “A Rebel major reportedly extended his hand to Dr. Palmer but the staunch Unionist stubbornly refused to shake it. Angered, the officer threatened to take off the doctor’s shoulder straps signifying his position as an army surgeon but Palmer retorted, ‘Not while I am alive.’ When news spread, the act of defiance endeared Palmer to the pro-Union element of the populace, who considered him ‘one of the strongest and most devoted friends of the country in the army.'”
Not everyone in York was as loyal to the Union. Nor were all of Palmer’s patients.
The majority of York’s residents had supported Abraham Lincoln’s opponents in the presidential election of 1860. There were pockets of strong Unionists in the town, particularly in the First Ward on the northeastern side. However, much of the western and southern part of town, with strong social and economic ties to Baltimore, was more pro-Southern in sentiment and voting patterns. And, that is where the hospital was located. As a whole, York leaned Democratic and its chief burgess, David Small, headed that political party locally as well as editing and publishing the largest Democratic paper in the county. Some citizens were decidedly anti-Lincoln and anti-government. Periodically, they expressed their sentiments publicly. A few took their feelings to the next level, hiding army deserters from Dr. Palmer’s hospital in their homes.
For two York men, that ill-advised action led to legal trouble and a train ride down to Baltimore where they faced Lt. Col. William S. Fish of the 1st Battalion, Connecticut Cavalry. He had served as the provost marshal of the Middle Department, Eighth Army Corps, since March 1863.
Here’s the story from the Baltimore Gazette of May 30, 1864.
“George Hinder and John Presler, of York, Pa., were yesterday brought before Col. Fish, charged with harboring deserters and uttering disloyal sentiments. They were sent to Fort M’Henry.”
The consequences of their actions were dank cells in Fort McHenry for much of the rest of the war. Hinder and Presley were not the only York Countians to faceFederal imprisonment for disloyalty but they were among the few who were caught aiding deserters from the army hospital. Army and newspaper accounts suggest that dozens of patients, fed up with the military and anxious to go home, deserted. Hence, Palmer and his successors limited the amount of time that the convalescents could spend outside of the hospital’s border fences and armed guards patrolled York’s streets.
To read much more on the honest and loyal Dr. Henry Palmer and the U.S. Army General Hospital in York, pick up a copy of the January 2019 issue of Gettysburg Magazine. It is available at most bookstores in Gettysburg, as well as from Civil War and More in Mechanicsburg, Pa. at 717-766-1899.